The province’s privacy watchdog has ruled an information leak during the 2011 election involving the P.E.I. Liberal party and three whistleblowers in the Provincial Nominee Program was a violation of P.E.I.’s privacy laws.
Karen Rose released her decision Tuesday regarding an incident that dates back to September 2011.
In her decision, she found private emails, a human resources complaint response and personnel files of three former government employees were leaked to the Liberal party by someone in government in breach of P.E.I.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPP) Act.
She also found the premier’s office, the Department of Economic Development and the executive council offices failed to properly investigate this privacy breach.
In September 2011, in the middle of a provincial election, the P.E.I. Liberal party released to the media a series of private emails that had been sent to former Innovation Minister Allan Campbell.
The emails were accompanied by a news release from the party, attempting to discredit three former provincial civil servants who were making allegations of fraud and bribery involving the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP).
The emails were penned by one of the informants, Svetlana Tenetko, discussing her views on the PNP and hardships she endured as a result of not having her contract renewed with the provincial government.
Then-premier Robert Ghiz told media at the time the emails had been leaked to the Liberal party anonymously in a brown envelope.
The leak of these emails came just a few days after Tenetko and two other former civil servants – Cora Plourd and Susan Holmes – had forwarded allegations of bribery and fraud involving the immigrant investor program to the federal department in Ottawa. Those allegations were detailed in a story on the front page of the Globe and Mail.
Ottawa sent the allegations to the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency to investigate. Both agencies later closed their probes with no charges.
But after the private emails appeared in The Guardian, the privacy commissioner at that time, Maria MacDonald, launched a privacy investigation.
The Guardian regularly checked for updates on this investigation over the last six years, and was told the office was facing an extensive backlog of files, which contributed to the delay.
MacDonald has since been replaced by Rose as privacy commissioner.
In her decision, Rose says it was the deputy minister of economic development in 2011 who originally gathered the information on the three whistleblowers that was eventually leaked to the Liberal party. The deputy minister at that time was Michael Mayne. Mayne has since served in several senior management roles in government but resigned as CEO of Health P.E.I. in October of this year.
On Sept. 15, 2011 – the day of the Globe and Mail article – Rose found Mayne provided the documents on the three whistleblowers to the premier’s deputy minister, the clerk of executive council and the deputy minister of justice of the day. After that, the documents were further shared with other government employees.
“Leaks of government information to the media are an age-old activity. Such leaks, however, take on a much more serious tone when they involve the disclosure of personal information. The lack of action in getting to the bottom of this particular leak causes me concern,”
– Privacy commissioner Karen Rose
Rose found this disclosure to be reasonable, considering the timing during an election campaign and the nature of the allegations being made in the media about the PNP by the three informants.
But the leak of the documents to the Liberal party, which in turn shared them with them media, was a breach of FOIPP law, Rose ruled.
Government told the commissioner it did not authorize disclosure of the information to the Liberal party nor was it aware of anyone within government who had released it.
But Rose laid the responsibility for the breach with the premier’s office, the Department of Economic Development and the executive council office.
She also was critical of the lack of a proper internal investigation of this breach, even after the privacy commissioner of the day asked the Department of Economic Development to conduct a review.
That review was conducted by Mayne and ended less than a month later, finding no violation of FOIPP had occurred.
“Leaks of government information to the media are an age-old activity. Such leaks, however, take on a much more serious tone when they involve the disclosure of personal information,” Rose said in her ruling.
“The lack of action in getting to the bottom of this particular leak causes me concern.”
Rose recommended that all three offices involved in this breach establish education and training of their management and staff on proper information handling practices. This training should focus especially on “employees who also have roles within the governing political party,” Rose said.
She further recommended the three offices develop better policies and procedures for dealing with information breaches, including a requirement that the offices “respond promptly with an investigation” if a breach does happen.
“One thing is certain; there will be other elections, and other election campaigns. The obligations to protect personal information should be learned and applied, to avoid this type of leak of personal information to a political party in future,” Rose said in her ruling.
The MacLauchlan government was quick to respond to the commissioner’s ruling, saying it accepts her recommendations.
In a statement released this afternoon, government noted this incident happened more than six years ago and that key players involved are not a part of the current administration.
“This is something that would not have been, and will not be, tolerated under this current government. We do business differently,” the statement said.
“We have introduced a number of significant reforms related to accountability and transparency, including an ethics and integrity commissioner, and notably the whistleblower legislation currently before the legislative assembly.”
Government further stated its commitment to protecting the personal information of Islanders, pointing to recent investments in information retention as a result of concerns raised in the auditor general’s e-gaming investigation.
“Training related to the proper handling of personal information is an integral part of the modernization of records management which has already been strengthened through the allocation of additional resources and new dedicated employees.”